- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000


On the Fredericksburg battlefield 138 years ago, an unidentified Union soldier from New York was promoted for bravery.

Little did anyone know that five months later, while patrolling the perimeter in southern Stafford County, this same soldier would crouch in the dirt and give birth.

It's estimated that nearly 400 women disguised as men fought during the Civil War. Documenting where they fought has been difficult. Two women are known to have taken part in Fredericksburg-area battles and historians say the number is probably larger.

As the National Park Service recently commemorated the Battle of Fredericksburg's anniversary, much was said of the men who lost their lives on that blood-soaked stretch of earth. But what about the women who fought?

"While their service could not significantly alter the course of the war, women soldiers deserve remembrance because their actions display them as uncommon and revolutionary," wrote Deanne Blanton, a military historian, in the National Archives Journal in the early 1990s.

"They faced not only the guns of the adversary, but also the sexual prejudices of their society."

Women were drawn to the war for different reasons, historians say. Some believed it was their civic duty to join. Others wanted to be close to their husbands. Still others joined to avoid the limited options available to women at home or to escape an abusive relationship.

"For many immigrant women, prostitution or domestic servitude were the only options they had at that time," says Elsa Lohman, a historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

"So if they could pull this off, they did just that."

Although women went to great lengths to change their appearances, their ruses were easier to pull off because of the haste with which both Northern and Southern states were enlisting soldiers.

The states "needed as many people as they could get," Miss Lohman says. "That was one way women slipped through."

Once in the ranks, their gender went unnoticed unless they were wounded or gave birth, as was the case of the unidentified female soldier in Stafford County.

Very little is known about this woman, although a letter from a fellow soldier to his wife sheds some light.

Union soldier Henry Butler confirmed what had been rumored about women infiltrating the ranks.

"She must have been one of those girls we read about," Butler wrote. Seemingly unmoved by the spectacle, Butler continued, "I think it was a queer place to have a baby, on picket, but guess things happen in this world."

• • •

While impersonating an infantryman was challenging, camp customs made it possible.

Sarah Edmonds enlisted in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry as Pvt. Franklin Thompson in May 1861. She went through basic training, impressing her comrades with her shooting and riding ability.

With a strong jaw and other masculine features, she didn't resort to fake mustaches or other disguises used by women soldiers. She also was able to keep up appearances in the field.

Her bunkmate never suspected he was a she, since soldiers generally slept in their clothes and sponge-bathed at best.

After participating in the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam, Edmonds deserted in April 1863, fearing her identity would be discovered after she contracted malaria.

In a written account of her exploits, she wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."

After the war, Edmonds married and had three children. She eventually revealed her identity in order to collect a military pension.

On June 30, 1886, she received a letter from the secretary of war acknowledging her as "a female soldier who served as a private rendering faithful service in the ranks" and approving her pension.

Arguably, the best description of what life was like for a woman Civil War soldier comes from Loreta Velazquez, also known as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford.

"My coats were heavily padded in the back and under the arms to the hips until I reached New Orleans. This served to disguise my shape. But the padding was very uncomfortable so I went to an old French army tailor and had him make for me a half a dozen fine wire-net shields. I wore these next to my skin and they proved very satisfactory in concealing my true form."

The normally high pitch of a woman's voice also proved manageable if the clothing looked right, wrote Miss Velazquez, who fought in the Battle of Ball's Bluff near Leesburg in 1861.

And it wasn't long before she became somewhat comfortable with her new persona.

"I lost all fear of being found out, and learned to act, talk and almost to think as a man," she wrote.

While historians have long known about the role women played during the war, the issue gained new prominence in recent years.

In the early 1990s, Lauren Cook Burgess, a female re-enactor, was thrown out of a living-history event in Antietam, Md., by the park service.

Park officials said a woman portraying a soldier flew in the face of authenticity. Miss Burgess sued the park service for discrimination, and won.

"It certainly made everyone take a second look at this phenomenon," says John Hennessy, the Fredericksburg park's assistant superintendent.

Although some women in the 1860s were discharged from the military after their sex was identified, there are no accounts of women being forced out for a lack of courage or "emotional" weakness, Miss Lohman says.

"Throughout history, women have always served in combat roles," she says. "For all we know, there could be women disguised as men in combat right now."


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